A fallen soldier represents a tragic loss for every American. But an airline pilot went above and beyond the call of duty; he made exceptional arrangements during a flight to honor a man who died for his country.
A flight attendant knocked on the cockpit door to speak with Captain Richard Rodriguez just moments before takeoff. There was “HR” (human remains) on board, she said. The pilot asked whether they were carrying military personnel, and she replied in the affirmative.
Rodriguez, himself a veteran, knew then and there what he had to do.
He asked the flight attendant to find the fallen soldier’s escort among the passengers; Rodriguez wished to offer his condolences. He exchanged brief words with the impeccably dressed army sergeant and thanked him for his work.
“I told him that he has the toughest job in the military,” Rodriguez shared, later writing about his experience of this humbling journey on his blog, Captains Log. “The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his hand,” he said.
The plane took off, but that was not the last of the announcements. A short while later, a different flight attendant visited the cockpit with a new message—the fallen soldier’s family was also on board the very same flight.
Rodriguez was moved by the presence of the grief-stricken father, mother, wife, and 2-year-old daughter who shared his flight. He also learned that the family was upset, because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before the flight departed.
“The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment,” Rodriguez wrote, “being unable to see him, was too much for him and the family to bear.”
Rodriguez absorbed this information patiently then told his flight attendant, “I’m on it.” He kept to his word, calling the flight dispatcher directly to request arrangements for the family once they landed. He waited a long time for an answer.
Eventually, Rodriguez received an unexpectedly heartfelt response. “Captain,” the reply began, “sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. There is policy on this now, and I had to check on a few things.”
“Upon your arrival a dedicated escort team will meet the aircraft,” dispatch explained. “The family will be taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal where the remains can be seen on the ramp. It is a private area for the family only.”
Then came the most moving line of all. “Captain,” the note finished, “most of us here in flight control are veterans. Please pass our condolences on to the family, thanks.”
The pilot kept his word, printing the message verbatim for the grieving family to read. However, anticipating a rush for the doors upon landing, the pilot planned ahead and made a thoughtful announcement to his passengers.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking,” he said across the loudspeaker. “I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement. We have a passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect,” he said, “a soldier who recently lost his life.”
“Also onboard are his father, mother, wife, and daughter,” he added. “Your entire flight crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the family to exit the aircraft first. Thank you.”
Rodriguez was humbled by the result. Not only did every passenger wait patiently for the bereaved family to retrieve their bags and exit the plane first, but many clapped, many offered condolences and prayers, and many shed a quiet tear for the man who died for his country.
The pilot completed his captain’s log with this message. “That day, everybody from the flight crew to the operations center to the 184 passengers onboard, we did what we could,” he wrote.
“I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on the sacrifices that millions of men and women have made to ensure our freedom,” Rodriguez concluded, “our safety, and the right to live a good life.”